Report: Many medical imaging tests performed in U.S. are unnecessary

When assessing a patient's aches and pains, doctors often turn to medical imaging tests to reach a swift and accurate diagnosis. But a new investigation from Consumer Reports finds x-rays, CT scans and other tests that expose patients to high levels of radiation are being done too frequently.

Currently, some 80 million CT scans are performed each year in the U.S., up from 3 million in 1980. However, as many as a third of these tests are not necessary and needlessly expose patients to high doses of dangerous radiation, according to the Consumer Reports probe.

"Doctors often aren't aware of the risks of radiation and they don't realize that CT scans can be linked to cancer," Trisha Calvo, Consumer Reports deputy content editor, told "CBS This Morning." "There have been some studies that show that up to half of doctors don't know that."

The report finds that unnecessary CT scans will cause approximately 29,000 cancers in the future, which is about 2 percent of all future cancers and 15,000 cancer deaths. Researchers also found found that medical imaging tests are most frequently used to diagnose the cause of headaches and back pain, and to screen for lung cancer.

"People want to know what's causing their headaches, but oftentimes CT scans are not the right test," said Calvo. "An MRI might be better and that doesn't expose you to any radiation. For back pain, people often want CT scans or x-rays but in most cases you don't need them."

She said Americans are overexposed to these diagnostic tests for a number of reasons. Some doctors have a financial incentive because they own the equipment. In other cases, a doctor may fear being sued for not treating a patient and so order imaging tests out of caution.

Calvo said patients must be their own best advocates to avoid these unnecessary tests and request other options."The first thing you should say is 'Why?' and the second thing you should say is, 'Is there another test that would give you the same information and wouldn't expose me to as much radiation?'"

Ultrasounds, MRIs and mammograms use the lowest level of radiation, while x-rays, CT scans and PET scans tend to expose patients to higher amounts. Patients also have the right to request that a technician use the lowest possible dose of radiation if it turns out the test is essential.

She also recommends asking the medical imaging facility when they were last accredited and even seeking out another doctor for a second opinion.